Of ivory towers and impenetrable texts

Linda Carreiro adds an Appendix to the History of Knowledge

A boat of waxen paper suspended by thin fishing line is pulling a great big book with translucent oiled pages like a great anchor or trawling net.

So begins An Appendix to the History of Knowledge by Calgary artist Linda Carreiro. The wet-look pages that ripple behind this little boat are painted with notations or stage directions for the theatre which I later learn accompany Shakespeare’s The Tempest . It’s an ambitious beginning to her exhibition which gathers together passages from some of history’s most illustrious writers and thinkers. The boat’s contents include two small wooden oars and a cargo of black letters that look as if they have fallen from a book. The letters first appeared as if they’d been burnt off the page but upon further inspection the charred pile is just painted black and the letters look like alphabet pasta: a convenient but not entirely convincing material.

The Library of Alexandria is a series of seven large drawings on Shoji rice paper. Each is painted with a mixture of lemon juice and rich sepia ink-coloured sugar. As a result the drawings look like pages ripped from an ancient fading book. From Aristotle to “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy brown dog” the series quotes passages of texts that are central to philosophy astronomy the construction of language and more esoteric bits scrounged from the history of western thought. She combines texts languages and typographies together obscuring the words and their literal meanings and playing with repetition and the form of each letter.

Her drawings Ptolemy Copernicus Calgary night sky October 12 2007 and Pythagoras are compelling for their handling of image and text together — a labelled map of the solar system with burnt marks in the paper to suggest stars or a gorgeous renaissance diagram flanked by numbers and text on either side. Carreiro’s layering of information emphasizes the complex history and enduring appreciation for these foundational texts. This mix-and-match might appear like an indiscriminate sampling but seeing the exhibition is also not unlike research or reading undertaken over a period of time. It can be looked at as an accumulation of what has been read special passages to make note of and of ideas that have endured for many readers throughout history.

It’s the minimalist text of Carreiro’s The Odyssey that is most rewarding to decode because it’s presented as somewhat of a puzzle. The small discs of various thicknesses that are affixed to the wall in a Braille script are punched from paperback copies of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey . Each of the tiny round stacks of discoloured pages compels a closer reading. The reward for looking up close is a recognizable bit of the epic tale. Of course when viewed from a distance the Braille also spells out a sentence. The common prohibition against “touching the art” and wall-sized scale of the Braille renders this passage difficult to read so it’s doubly coded: people who cannot read Braille and those who can are both in the same predicament. If the exhibition is “read” from left to right clockwise around the gallery then this positioned as the last work in the show is a clever wordplay.

The visual interpretations of these texts that are enshrined in every university’s curriculum are perfectly at home here in the Nickle Art Museum’s institutional gallery space. The university — so often derided as an ivory tower — is an interesting site for this series but especially for Carreiro’s gleaming paper tower rising from floor to ceiling of the gallery space. Sadly Plato Pythagoras or Aristotle are not widely read outside of the academic environment and this is the unfortunate predicament that An Appendix to the History of Knowledge can’t seem to escape either. Without a detailed understanding of writing by these heavyweight thinkers readers of Carreiro’s show might feel as if they’re missing something of her sensitive interpretations.